The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, our command-wide milblog, featuring comments, anecdotes, and observations from service members currently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. This is GWOT-lit's forward position, offering those in-country a chance to share their experiences and reflections with the rest of us. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. The Sandbox is a clean, lightly-edited debriefing environment where all correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted. And contributors may rest assured that all content, no matter how robust, is currently secured by the First Amendment. To submit a post, click here.


Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Email: GarrettAnderson0311@gmail.com
Milblog: Iraq/Afghanistan and More

The memories manifest, gently blowing in my mind like curtains in a draft. I may find myself aboard the U.S.S. Harpers Ferry, floating back in time. Or I may find myself aboard the parking ticket mobile of my day job getting paid to write. In August 2004 the Marines of Alpha Company 1/3 (one­three) had been acclimating to being owned by the waves of two typhoons on our route out of Okinawa. I turned nineteen and it had been a year since I had traded home for boot­camp. The smaller troop transport would rock and whine; occasionally it felt like the naval vessel had struck a rock. Some Marines would get sick, or fall out of bed, dangerous if they were in an upper rack. We were supposed to be on a tour of the South Pacific, heading for Singapore and the Philippines.
 
 
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Harpers Ferry post-Iraq, 2005.

 

Sometimes looking back on it­­ I daydream that perhaps the storm spit us out in an alternate reality, because instead of some prostitute inhabited jungle sucking humidity trap, the ships offloaded us in Kuwait and we ended up in Fallujah, Iraq just in time for an urban battle.

 

Framed GARRETT Sbox 3

I was not aware of or concerned with our final destination when I began reading the collection of books my father had mailed. I read Dialogues of Plato, a translated version of the great ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s account of his teacher Socrates. Socrates was a Hoplite veteran of the Peloponnesian War fought between the Athenians and the Spartans. As I recall the story from almost a decade ago, Socrates made a name for himself because he would question everything. I now hypothesize this was a latent manifestation of combat trauma. Once you have spent enough time in a combat zone, it has been my experience that for a special belligerent subculture of the few, an old iron door to the room of many questions swings open.

I currently find myself twenty­eight­years­old in an Introduction to Western Civilization class at Portland Community College, learning about Socrates again and recalling what was deep shit for a ship ride in the ancient past of 2004. Fifty-one Marines including the attachments of 1/3 were killed from October 2004 to late January 2005. Many more were wounded. All brothers forever, some personal friends. The memory draft kicks up again and I am frozen in time. I am taking cover behind the Navy doc who bravely stands guard while Marines of third platoon (3rd herd) rest.
 
 
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Fallujah, Iraq, December 2004. (Photo by Matt Ranbarger)

 

In his famous book Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut wrote about becoming unstuck in time. Vonnegut had been an Army grunt who was taken prisoner and survived the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during the Second World War. I now hypothesize that becoming unstuck in time was a latent expression of combat trauma. That’s how it has felt to me waking up in different years preceding the war. Times before I ate the apple were something deeper than pleasure reading.

I was present when we were surfing the waves of aggression, or I am present when I study for this week’s exam, both occurring to me at the same time. Intensity pumping through the crevices of my mind like pressing the trigger down and holding; going cyclic with the memory machine­gun.
 
 
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Korengal, Afghanistan, May 2006. (Photo by Chavo)

 

When The Sandbox started running posts from my blog I was crawling out of the thick mist of crisis. After two hospitalizations for combat-related mental health issues I was disillusioned with my care, while at the same time putting heavy emphasis on a new attempt at assimilating. I began writing about war and transition because I had been fond of writing long before my Iraq experience and found it to be an effective outlet for exploring deep feelings of pain incurred during my active duty service. Fellow contributor Matt Gallagher came across my blog in early 2011 and put me in contact with the duty officer  of The Sandbox.

As I crawled out of the mist this terrific collaborative helped me feel accepted, which greatly enhanced my confidence after being too low for too long. Thank you Roy and thank you Bruce. Things started happening after that, I began networking with writing veterans and a community of supportive civilians. A team and I hit the road and filmed The November War, a documentary that captures the perspective of members of my platoon who fought alongside each other on November 22, 2004. The day I consider to be my source point of trauma.

Framed GARRETT Sbox 5

 

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The California-based crew on the road in North Carolina during the Cohen family’s interview.

Here is the trailer:

 

 

I married Katharine, the most important part of my coming-home experience, in October of 2012. We met shortly after my discharge from the Marines in October 2007.

 

Framed GARRETT Sbox 2

 

I recommend a significant other to those who are in crisis, if possible. The right one will understand.

I empathize with being in crisis without opportunity. I don’t mean to bring these two separate worlds too close, but if you can’t find a significant other find a pet. Good books have been written about the subject; pets will help a suffering person feel needed, which is an important step toward normal -- daily steps, in my experience.

 

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Me and Lucy hanging in our apartment, 2011.

 

I found myself deeply affected by combat when I returned home at 22. I could not wrap my head around losing friends and this country’s disconnection with the veterans sent to do the dirty work they are not willing to carry out themselves. The care that seemed confused, underfunded, and had me convinced those who had developed mental health issues in combat were being treated as lab rats for meds because the shrinks had no cure for what ailed us. The most helpful knowledge I have come across or gathered during my journey through these years of transition, writing with The Sandbox and filming my battle buddies who each walked their own path back from their combat experience, was best summarized in my opinion by our old corpsman, “Doc” Brian Lynch.

When Doc Lynch spoke his wisdom a lightning bolt went off in my head, and though cliched it has brought me peace: "Don’t let the bastards win." I mean that monstrous bureaucracy that is happy to shred your records because they are too lazy to truly advocate for our care, which is just a government paycheck to them.

If you can muster the strength, if you can still fight through pain, understand that as the war closes out so will public interest in our dispositions. Due to our minority status in American society we will not have enough veterans voting to represent our needs. This leaves us to the mercy of those in our society who will look away from what they don’t want to see. Every one of us is vital and those without purpose can find it in advocacy. A basic internet search will plug you in with various veterans organizations that provide a multitude of services and get you tapped in with a tribe that speaks to you.

We need to rise to the top. Use your GI Bill and represent yourself as an ambassador to those civilians who don’t get it. Nearly alone we bore the burden for well over a decade of war, and if the sacrifice of our fallen is to mean anything, make it mean forward momentum. If you fall short, remember falling short in service and the remedial action; get back up. We will need veteran politicians and media, business majors, foremen and scientists, writers like the grunts mentioned above, nurses and those with grave disabilities to articulate their needs.

Don’t count the years that have passed, please look forward for all of us. We have been held to the highest standard this country holds a citizen to, and those of us that are able need to maintain that standard and be an example. We also need to be studied carefully for the first time in the history of American warfare. if we were at least accounted for in status after discharge, research in the fields concerning veterans would be light years ahead of where we find ourselves today. They won’t count us after discharge because it would raise the “official” suicide statistics to a staggering number that can’t be stuffed into a paper­shredder.

I remain haunted but optimistic. My therapy is creativity, for better or worse. Bless you, readers, for being an active participant during that transitional period of my life. My deepest gratitude to David Stanford and Garry Trudeau (The Sandbox) for providing this forum of first hand expression and helping us archive our history.

 

Note: Garrett Phillip Anderson's numerous Sandbox posts include Some Things I Learned In Combat, Church Bells Sing Suicide, Semper Fi Mom, Mexican Marine, and Happy Marines Come From Connecticut.

Name: Mikey Piro
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: ptsdsurvivordaily
Email: mpiro45@gmail.com

Framed Piro SURVIVOR
Disclaimer up front, I am attempting to watch the Lone Survivor movie after consulting with many family, friends and confidants. I am not acting on a psychologist's advice, or warning, but instead dusting off my skills developed from Prolonged Exposure Therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy. The idea is to engage in comprehensive preparation for watching movies with stressors and triggers. I expect the result that I am better prepared to watch Lone Survivor, and subsequently better prepared to handle life. I do not recommend this approach without the guidance of a therapist the first time. Let me say that again, go get a therapist for PET or CPT. (Here are some great therapy services). Do not just read a book or blog and do it yourself.

I am attempting this because I feel that, like many skills in life, the ones PET and CPT taught are perishable. I completed both courses and have used their techniques and coaching effectively for some time. Still, tools need maintenance. I do not doubt this will be an unpleasant experience. My first pass through Prolonged Exposure Therapy brought me up close to Restrepo. It was a very emotional experience. Both Prolonged Expose and Cognitive Processing therapy force you to stare down and confront the worst days. And while each day is getting better, part of gaining control over this is not avoiding everything with trigger potential like it is the plague.

A Quick Review of Prolonged Exposure Therapy

The flavor of Prolonged Exposure Therapy I undertook used the Subjective Unit of Distress (SUDs) level to measure progress. From the start, even though it was a subjective feeling, it was quantified and tracked. Over the course of many weeks, after I established my SUDs scale, my therapist and I would systematically tackle and monitor my distress level for my “homework."

We started at the bottom of the scale and worked our way up. The objective of each session was to address and unwind the spike in feelings and raw emotional memories that uncomfortable situations brought out. After enough exposure with positive outcomes, we were able to lower the barrier to gain a level of comfort.

For example, for a long while I would avoid at all costs a crowded place, especially the subway. Being around that many people made me extremely uncomfortable and put me on high alert. There were more than a few days in Iraq where a crowded market or labor line brought a bomb and chaos. We were trained to be on the lookout for anyone suspicious, and to disperse crowds. Well, Manhattan doesn’t care about my view of crowds or suspicious people. If I was forced to ride, I would come home exhausted for days.

So, as part of my homework, I had to ride the subway. For an hour. During the peak. No, this was not an intentional sadistic exercise. I went in with a plan and had a release valve to pull. The point of the exercise was to gain comfort with the SUDs level. The emotions behind my extreme discomfort were just that: emotions. Logic tells me that there is no reason I should not be able to ride a subway. I will admit, it was almost unbearable. But, after a few trips, I realized I could gain my composure more quickly and that the danger was in my mind.

My SUDs for the subway halved by the end of my therapy sessions. That was only part of the homework, but overall, as a follow on to CPT, Prolonged Exposure was the most challenging and rewarding therapy. The initial gains were exponential, though those skills are now a little creaky. It is time to stare them down. As one of my favorite Crossfit phrases puts it: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Bring On The War Movies

OK, here is the hits list of what I watched and am watching:

 

ActofValorblack_hawk_downSaving_Private_Ryan_posterZeroDarkThirty

Restrepo_poster

 

Act of Valor :  A Navy SEAL recruiting video. Fiction and SEAL chest-thumping, so a good safe start.

Blackhawk Down :  Here is the first of the true to-life stories. The sucky thing about all these movies is that we know going in how they end. I still have never watched Titanic due to one excuse (aside from Leonardo DiCaprio) -- that I know how it ends.

Zero Dark Thirty : There are intense scenes and it is, again, based on actual events. I think that makes these types harder for me to watch. The end definitely reminds me of a few raids where we walked or flew into the objective, though I am nowhere near the skill level of a Navy SEAL.

Saving Private Ryan : This movie always gets me. The beginning and end are gut-wrenching.

Restrepo :  This is the hardest for me to watch.  As part of my original homework, it took me days to watch this movie. The sounds, sights and action are raw. If Lone Survivor plays this way, I am in for a rough go.

 

Wish me luck, and thanks for following along.

 

Name: Charlie Sherpa
Previously embedded: with former unit in Afghanistan
Hometown: Boone, Iowa
Milblog: Red Bull Rising
Email: SherpaatRedBullRising.com

Editor's note: I appreciate this update on Scott Kesterson's project. Troy Steward posted about "At War" here on The Sandbox in November 2007, and the original trailers embedded in that post -- especially the haunting second one -- have stayed with me.

The director of a documentary that tells the story of a U.S. Army National Guard Embedded Training Team (E.T.T.) in Southern Afghanistan 2006-2007, as well as a parallel story regarding Canadian security forces operating in the same area, Scott Kesterson says he is throwing out previous versions of the film and going back to scratch.

Kesterson recently updated listeners to the "Top Talk" podcast regarding the project, now in post-production under the working title "Bards of War." For an mp3 of the 53-minute podcast, click here.

In that interview, Kesterson says he now plans to separate the two story lines into two smaller, 40- to 60-minute documentaries. The first, regarding the "Red Devils" of 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (P.P.C.L.I.), would be released in early December 2013 via digital download or rental services such as iTunes or Netflix. The other, regarding an Oregon Army National Guard team of embedded trainers, would follow approximately one year later.

"These films are kind of putting [Afghanistan] to bed in very critical sense," Kesterson says. "What we're talking about is two versions of the war. That's why the two stories go together. One is a very kinetic version of the war, and the other is this embedded training, indigenous-type, mentor-advisor combat advisor role, which is a completely different lens on the war. You put those two side-by-side, and you start to, arguably, get a glimpse into what we didn't do right and could do better, and, arguably, is a direction in the future."

Originally shot as "At War" and slated for release in 2008 or 2009, music-rights acquisition and other other production challenges put the film project on the shelf for a few years. (A handful trailers and excerpts from that film is available on YouTube here.) After shooting the film as embedded media, Kesterson subsequently worked in Afghanistan as an information operations consultant. He also occasionally wrote at the Huffington Post.

"['At War'] was an attractive and alluring product, but a lot of that was because of the music," Kesterson says, "When you strip away the music, you don't have much of a film." In the new film, he says, contemporary follow-up interviews with veterans will help place the experiences of boots and bullets on the ground into a larger context.

"There's a very rich amount of material there, of telling just that story," Kesterson says. "That's a story of National Guard citizen-soldiers doing something that historically has never happened before: That's training, equipping, and fielding through combat, a nation's military, a national police force, and a nation's border police force."

Name: Garrett Phillip Anderson
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan
Hometown: Portland, OR
Email: GarrettAnderson0311@gmail.com
Milblog: Iraq/Afghanistan and More

In my documentary And Then They Came Home I ask Marines that I served with the same thirty questions, so that I can gauge patterns in their responses eight years after our shared point of trauma. One of my questions is, “Do you think a warrior ever comes home?” I am now preparing to film my own interview, which will leave only one Marine in Mexico to be filmed when I return from my wedding.

I meditate on my own response. My life-long hometown friend Antonio has been sleeping on my couch for the past few weeks, stringing filmed pieces together so that editing will not be a hassle and we will be able to make our December deadline for the film.

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Location shoot for And Then They Came Home. Indiana, 2012.

Photo by C.J. Maddox.

Does a warrior ever really come home? I couldn’t tell you, because deep in the beat-up wallet I bought after my 2006 deployment to Afghanistan is a National Guard ID tucked behind my plastic cards and license. In April of 2010 I wrote my Guard unit a letter of resignation and have not had to put my uniform on since. I am contracted until December 2013.
 
I don’t know what it is like to come home, I haven’t been there since I watched my southern California suburbia youth haven disappear in the rearview mirror of my recruiter’s SUV, bound for Los Angeles to catch a bus for San Diego three weeks after I turned eighteen in August 2003. You are now leaving childhood, Palmdale California 1986-2003.

I survived two combat deployments, serving in the Marine Corps from August 2003 to August 2007 as an infantryman. A historian might note that those were the most violent years of the war.

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Breaking locks and burning blocks; Fallujah. Iraq. November 2004.

Photo by Garrett Anderson.

One day I found myself honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. I left my home base of Hawaii changed and bound for southern California. I spent a month at home, went to work for my Uncle for a month, and caught a train to Portland Oregon to visit my best friend.

Signs of trouble were seemingly slow to come, I was still drinking like a Marine, which can be compared to twice that of a frat boy, one less than a vagrant, and the nights had been bothering me for some time. There is still a hole in my best friend’s apartment where I threw a hunting knife into his wall.

In November I returned to California to start a business with my friend Antonio after coming into a family inheritance. We purchased film equipment and started to film television commercials and court depositions in California’s Antelope Valley. We were the youngest members of our Chamber of Commerce and I found that clients were receptive to a former Marine; my service would be brought up on the first interview and was absolutely an asset. I had no formal training in running a business, but Antonio and I seemed to be doing alright during the days, and at night I would return to my father’s house, drink like a Marine and watch endless videos of Fallujah on Youtube.

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A-Co. clears Fallujah, Iraq. November, 2004.

 Photo by Garrett Anderson.

I was in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004, and if you knew me in late 2007 you knew I fought there; it was all I ever wanted to talk about. I had felt zero emotional connection to friends and family since I returned home and I wondered if I had ever felt anything in the first place. I was sure however that I had been doing a good job at faking it, and I would think to myself that the connection would probably come naturally soon.

Sleep was so infrequent that all I could remember about it was that I didn’t hold it as a priority at the time and could go for a couple of days on a few hours. I was standing on my porch smoking a cigarette drunk one night when I announced to my father that I was thinking about joining the National Guard unit that I had read in the local paper was getting ready to deploy to Iraq in 2008. My father had this way he would look at me every now and again back then, a sort of deep baffle with a nod of understanding.

In December 2007 I joined the National Guard, I signed a contract to become a tanker -- a soldier who rides in a tank. My father had been the same thing when he was in the Army, and after working with tanks in 2004 I was convinced that this would be the most enjoyable way to return to Iraq.

I signed the contract and swore in over the phone on the same day. After I had sworn in it occurred to me, through the haze of the previous night’s hangover, that I was not clear on an important part of the contract. I asked the recruiter how long the contract I had just signed was for. He looked embarrassed and quickly said, “You wanted the bonus right?” I replied that I did, and he told me, “It’s six years.”

I was stunned, but thought to myself I guess I’ll just keep doing this for the next six years; I had knocked out four in the Marines and I knew once I had sworn in there was not much that could be done to reverse it. When I got to my new unit I was informed that their status had changed from tankers into infantry, because more National Guard tanks weren't needed in Iraq. I had joined to return to Iraq in an armored death chariot. I found myself back out in the open and on my feet. This made me uncomfortable.

I liked the people in my National Guard unit, and was able to make friends with my new platoon as I figured out how the National Guard was different from the Marines. I was surprised and excited by the professionalism of the unit; most of the soldiers had done prior active duty service like myself and joined the Guard after. There were even a handful of Marines in the unit. We would show up to train one weekend a month and the rest of the time we would work at our civilian day jobs.

I prepared for Iraq and went back to cutting commercials and drinking at night, not sleeping and with a new weight on my shoulders: the next deployment. Some nights I would open my father’s bedroom door and babble drunkenly until he was awake and shut his door. One night my father came over to the computer to tell me good night. I suddenly began to cry and I told him that I had been thinking of shooting myself with the shotgun upstairs. He was baffled again, and I was sure I would have to answer for that slip after we got home from work the next day.

The next day came and I did not go to work. I drank and told my friend Antonio that I wanted to go to the open microphone stand-up comedy night at a club in Hollywood. By the time we got there I was tanked and quickly sank into an incoherent mess. I don’t remember my routine, but I am sure it was nonsensical. After it was over we left the club and Antonio and a friend wanted to get something to eat. I told them to leave me in the SUV and they left. I remember some of what happened next, and the other parts Antonio filled in for me later. When they found me I was trying to kick out the back window of my vehicle. Antonio let me out, terribly confused, and then I disappeared.

I left my friends and found myself drunk and walking through alleys and Hollywood streets. The writer’s strike was going on and screenwriters waved signs in front of one of the production studios. I checked myself into a hotel room and visited a liquor store to pick up a forty of fine malt liquor. I pounded the forty and sat in the hotel room. I didn’t want to go home because I didn’t want to face my father, and I didn’t want to return home to an empty house where I might shoot myself. I remember that in the drunkenness I tried to hang myself, but the knot I had tied with the towel came undone on the shower rod and I found myself on my ass wondering why that thing didn’t hold. And then something hit me. I was trying to kill myself. I had been acting strangely and something I had been in denial about was very real. The things I had heard on the news and radio ads were true, and something had happened to me in combat that was killing me back home.

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With a member of the former Iraqi National Guard, Camp Fallujah, 2004.

Photo by Garrett Anderson.

I called my mother, who came to pick me up from the hotel, and the next day I found myself a twenty-two-year-old combat veteran in a mental hospital. Antonio had spent the night searching for me, along with my step-brother, and I was able to explain things when he came to visit me in the hospital. The initial intake and my first twenty-four hours was spent being evaluated alongside people with severe mental issues, some criminals, and this setting I found to be completely insane and counter-productive to my care.

I spent the rest of March 2008 in the hospital. When I returned, my unit had deployed to Iraq without me and I began going to Guard weekends as a member of the “rear detachment,” comprised of soldiers who had medical conditions that did not allow them to deploy. I had left Antonio and our business behind and went to work for my mother while I attended aftercare in the hospital. The economy was tanking and I wanted to get on my feet a regular way, so I moved into my sister’s apartment and found a job at an aerospace factory. I worked on the factory floor with Vietnamese immigrants, some of whom were Vietnam combat veterans. We would tell war stories, and they would slap me on the back on the Fridays that I had to dress in my Army uniform to go to a Guard weekend.

After the first hospitalization I began to notice that I would become nauseous before reporting to my unit, a nervousness that would cause me to vomit. As the factory became a victim of the economy I decided at the end of 2008 that I wanted to move to Portland Oregon, so I put in my two-week notice with my job and showed up to my last Guard weekend in California. The acting unit commander wished me well and told me that that weekend he wanted me to watch over a soldier who had been experiencing similar issues. I agreed to watch the soldier. I knew him well and he had told me a bit about his issues. I had started to worry about him during the previous Guard weekend; he had been prior active duty Army and had returned from a deployment to Iraq.

I stepped outside with him and we stacked our gear next to each other. I informed the soldier I would be watching him during the weekend and he was alright with that. We lit up cigarettes and I asked him if he thought he would be alright to train over the Guard weekend? He said yes and I believed him. A moment later he was crying and told me, “I don’t know why I am crying. Anderson.”  I understood why he was crying and told him that I thought he needed help. I told him it would be a better idea for him to return home. He told me he started a post-traumatic stress disorder program later in the week and when I told the acting commander that the soldier was having problems, he agreed and sent the soldier home. My friend called me to let me know he made it home and I have not seen or talked to him since.

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Garrett Anderson and Andrew Rothlein pose in front of Alpha Company's first objective during the battle. Fallujah, Iraq, 2004.

Photo by Jose Moracruz.

I drove up to Portland, Oregon and got a job writing parking tickets for a private company. It took me a few months to check into my new Guard unit because there were no tank units near Portland, so in the end I was sent to an infantry unit. I had told the guy placing me that I had been rated non-deployable and asked him not to send me to a deploying unit. My infantry unit had deployed to Afghanistan when I got to it, so I once again found myself in the rear detachment.

I had saved up a little bit and moved from my friend’s loft into an apartment, and found myself truly alone for the first time in my life. At first I thought that being alone is what I had always wanted, but the nights got longer again and the same weight had been with me. I felt less than cured and was not sure if there was a cure for how life felt. In January 2010 I once again found myself in a hospital after strong suicidal ideation.

I got out and this time it did not take long for me to realize that things were still not fixed. I could feel myself running out of patience with myself and one day in April 2010 I was walking in Portland, fearing the next Guard weekend, when I realized that the source for most of the anxiety in my life was being a member of the National Guard. I was not a bad soldier and that was part of the problem; it looked like I was fine, so why would anyone think I wasn’t? Even with two hospitalizations I was seen as fit for duty though I felt completely unfit for duty and the pressure was building. It agitated my symptoms and I felt like someone was going to deploy me even if they were not, and the fear of deployment agitated these things that literally drove me insane. I decided that if I valued my life I would write the National Guard unit a letter of resignation and face the consequences or carry on, because I knew I would not survive much longer under the status quo, certainly not until December 2013.

In April of 2010 I wrote something that changed my life, a letter of resignation…

With proper military respect and to whom it may concern,

I joined the United States Marine Corps in August of 2003, shortly
after graduating high school. After completing the Marine Corps School of
Infantry in February of 2004 I was stationed in Kaneohe Bay Hawaii where I
trained for a deployment to the Philippines specializing in jungle warfare.
When training was completed we set sail from Okinawa and continued on to
Kuwait. In a few months my infantry battalion suffered the loss of fifty-one
brothers, many of whom I had crossed paths with during my then short stint.
Afterward I participated in a combat deployment to northeastern Afghanistan
where my battalion suffered four KIA. Since the loss of so many close friends
I have never been able to reconcile my belief in service with my belief in
life.
     I no longer cherish the ability to be combat effective, lost in the
most evil haze of hell that a war can produce. I miss my friends and am often
confused as to why I am alive and they are not, I cannot imagine what it is
like to draw the short straw. This thought consumes me, I find myself unable
to comprehend any sort of meaning in this life, and I miss my friends.
     Since my discharge from the Marine Corps I have spent time in two
different mental hospitals, one for an attempted suicide and the other two
years later after the symptoms of a beast of an affliction returned to kill
me again. Being a dumb grunt I do not know much other than that I am still
alive and that I do not have the ability to hurt another human being.
      I will not lace up my boots again, and I am aware that there are
consequences for this action. I write this letter as a resignation and not a
declaration of insubordination, I beg for mercy and for benefits that I
earned walking between steel raindrops twice. I hope that I can someday make
peace with the violence that has consumed my twenties, I pray that this
affliction does not consume my thirties on into the rest of my life. I hope
the reader of this letter a successful and safe career, I hope the reader of
this letter finds what they are looking for in life, I thank God for the
United States Military, full of brave souls and too full of sacrifice for me,
if this is delayed cowardice than a coward is what I now am. I will not be
returning phone calls or allowing visitors into my home without a warrant,
this is not personal, it is simply my own paranoia of a large world that I
have seen destroy good men.
       Lastly I would like to thank ***** for doing everything
in their power to help a Soldier when he was down.

                                    Fair winds and good luck,

                                       Garrett Phillip Anderson

I expected my cell phone to be assaulted by incoming phone calls that morning, but nothing came. I felt a wave of fear sweep over me; I knew military police would probably be at my apartment, maybe after work. I went home from lunch. I was astonished to find an email from our training sergeant that explained I would not have to put on my uniform again and that the unit wanted to help me through this process of discharge but I had to contact them. I did and the process began.

Since then I have not had to attend a Guard weekend. I have written for therapy, and that has led to this film I am working on. I am getting married soon and live with my fiancé, and have created a more stable support network. Nothing is fixed, but the pressure being taken off of me has allowed me to live a more real and fulfilling life.

 

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Location shoot for documentary And Then They Came Home, Colorado, 2012.

Photo by C.J. Maddox.

I was told that I would go to two review boards for discharge; the first would be a mental health screening and the next, if I was found not fit for duty at the mental health screening, would be my actual discharge board. I went to the first board in Madigan connected to Fort Lewis in Washington State in January of 2011. Madigan would later be found to have been lowering PTSD ratings for soldiers to save money at the time I was seen there. All I can conclude from that is that my story was so fucked up even those dirty shrinks said I was not fit for duty.

I waited for my discharge board and it never came. In July 2011 I was called by my unit and told to report for two weeks of annual training. I explained that I was still waiting for my discharge board and he explained that my not fit for duty status expired after one hundred eighty days. I called my father and we got in contact with a congressional representative who was able to delay my annual training and start the process again.

In November of 2011 I flew to Georgia for another fit for duty board and was again found not. I had a second phone interview after the Madigan story broke and I think that one went well. I am not clear if I will ever be discharged from the National Guard. I wish I knew what it felt like to be truly free again. I also wonder: How many more soldiers like me are out there in this limbo? The unit when informed went out of its way to help while following the rules of the system, so if there is blame to be put on delay it is on whatever is happening above. I recently received a letter from the VA apologizing for the delay in my case review, and assuring me that they will get back to me when the process is finished.

Combat operations in Afghanistan are slated to end in 2014; luckily my contract ends December 2013. In a decade of service my time will not have known peace. The unit knows I am not fit to serve, the shrinks have found me unfit to serve, I know I am not fit to serve, and for two and a half years I have been waiting for the paperwork to be filed.

The only reason I am better today than I used to be is because I found another way. I have pages of paperwork from mental hospitals and a film I am editing to verify how it could have been that combat affected a young life so deeply. I urge those in similar situations to seek help, because they will wait for you to die before offering help if you don’t do anything for yourself. I proudly served my country and fought through two combat deployments. I am not ashamed of having been so affected, but I am ashamed of how the system treats warriors who have put their lives on the line to protect it. This makes me nauseous and I don’t know what to do with any of this information.

Framed Anderson TO WHOM g4

Next to the grave of a relative killed on the last day of World War One.

Photo by C. J. Maddox.

Name: C.J. Grisham
Returned from: Iraq and Afghanistan 
Milblog: Afghanistan War Journal

Framed CJ SECOND KNOCK coverA couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of being able to view a new documentary called A SECOND KNOCK AT THE DOOR. It covers an issue that is taboo within military families and is underreported by the media, like most things related to war.

The term “friendly fire” evokes memories of Patrick Tillman, the American football star who left the NFL to join the United States Army after 9/11 and was subsequently killed in Afghanistan. The controversy behind Tillman’s death included the Army’s cover-up of friendly fire, which unleashed a media maelstrom as was told in the documentary The Tillman Story. For Christopher E. Grimes, then a graduate student planning his Master’s thesis in Public Policy at Northwestern University, the case provoked a question: how many other cases like Pat Tillman’s are there? The result of Grimes’ thesis research is the award-winning documentary feature A Second Knock at the Door, which shares the heart-breaking stories of four families who have lost loved ones due to friendly fire.

When I was first asked if I wanted to review the film, I was hesitant. I tend to see most documentaries coming from the film industry about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as slanted against reality and in a manner that casts a negative light on our troops. So, admittedly, I went into this with skepticism and a desire to at least warn my readers about the film. What I found was quite different.

A Second Knock at the Door is a very unbiased and objective view of what families go through in finding out that their loved one was killed by friendly fire -– or even just the suspicion that that is what happened.

The military as a whole, and the Army specifically, has learned a great deal about how to handle suspected incidents of friendly fire since the Tillman case. The military has recognized that hiding or minimizing the truth is not beneficial and only makes matters worse.

The film rightly highlights that fratricide, the actual term for “friendly fire,” is a given in war. There has never been a war and will probably never be one in which a troop is not accidentally killed by a friendly force.

When I was in Iraq, we suffered a close call near the town of Al Mishikhab, south of An Najaf. Our Cav Squadron broke off by troops to envelop the town. Mishikhab is located in a fertile area along a river I can’t remember the name of (didn’t write it in my journal for some reason). C Troop (Crazyhorse), 3-7 Cav crossed the river to the east and then began pushing north. A Troop (Apache), continued along the main MSR on Route 28. At this point, a major sandstorm was blowing through but nothing to the level of one that came a few days later. At a point along the route where our two troops’ movement began to come closer together and parallel each other, our troop was mistaken for enemy movement. We had been fighting the Republican Guard and had them in a pincer movement. Unfortunately, FBCB2 was not as widespread in early 2003, and Apache thought we were enemy tanks through the haze. A Bradley opened up on us with its .50 Cal machine gun. Immediately, the nets filled with frantic calls for cease fire as leaders recognized friendly fire. Thankfully, no one was injured in that brief encounter as only a few bursts were shot out.

Unfortunately, such is not the case for some families.

The Army’s policy on informing the families of fallen soldiers is to “give them the truth, they best they know it and as fast as they can.” This was not the experience of the four families featured in the film, that had to wade through red tape and wait between six months to a year to have the deaths confirmed as friendly fire only after repeated inquiries. The families of Sgt. Lee Todacheene (Farmington, NM, Navajo Nation), PFC Jesse Buryj (Canton, OH), PFC David Sharrett II (Oakton, VA) and SPC Wesley Wells (Libertyville, IL) open their homes and their hearts to share their stories of loss, betrayal and frustration.

Oftentimes, it’s just as confusing for military officials as it is for families to find the truth. The “fog of war” affects us all, and the truth doesn’t usually come out until autopsies are done and questions arise. Because our troops are so highly trained to prevent, if not miminize, fratricide it’s easy to immediately conclude in most cases that this isn’t an option.

Grimes does a commendable job of undertaking intense research and sharing both sides of the issues -- the families’ and the military’s. His research shows that following the Gulf War I, where the number of deaths resulting from friendly fire accounted for 17% of US combat deaths, the Department of Defense completely revised casualty reporting procedures associated with friendly fire, requiring that the Army provide casualty information to the next of kin in an “accurate and timely manner” after a “reasonable suspicion of fratricide” is established.

A Second Knock at the Door is a gripping documentary that has earned Best Documentary nods at both the East Lansing Film Festival and the Sycamore Film Festival. The DVD version was officially released on March 13, 2012 and is available for purchase at the documentary’s website at www.asecondknockatthedoor.com.


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